Review - “How the Light Changes” by Steve Spence

Martin Stannard

“How the Light Changes” by Steve Spence, pub. Shearsman. 95pp.

It was William Carlos Williams, I believe, who said that a poem is a machine made out of words. But I don't think he meant that writing poems was a mechanical process, or that it was a good idea to make a bunch of poems using the same set of undistinguished but serviceable parts over and over again to the exclusion of variety and invention and imagination. Similarly, Mrs. Beeton, she of cook book renown, when writing of casseroles, would encourage the cook to use their imagination and vary their ingredients (perhaps beef one week, then flamingo the next) because she knew that the same casserole week in, week out would very rapidly bore the pants off people, and the family would soon be phoning for a takeaway.

If we allow, not wholly frivolously, that a poem may be a casserole made out of words, Mr. Spence rarely varies his ingredients in the dishes offered here.

There are 67 poems in this book, and all of them (with, as far as I can tell, one rather inexplicable and quite dreadful exception) tread the now familiar path of collage/montage (what's the difference when the materials are words?) of found/overheard snippets, quotations etc. – bits of language culled from a variety of sources, basically – strung together to make poems that sometimes hint at coherence but then are happy to be disjointed and treat the non sequitur as an old friend. Not much wrong with any of that, to be honest, but Mr. Spence appears not to have read his Mrs. Beeton. Indeed, the ingredients that make up the casseroles here are more or less constant throughout, and are as follows:

- direct speech, with either a he said or she said, occurs in 58 of the 67 poems; some of the speech may be quoted or overheard, some of it might be made up. "There's a random element at work/ here," she said.

- aquatic imagery in the form of fish, fishing, some kind of sea or water life (perch, crabs, whales, etc.) appears in 53 of the poems. I haven't figured out what purpose this imagery serves, especially as its use is neither consistent or constant. It just feels like words to use.

- the word "yet" runs "said" close as the book's most (over)used word; it occurs in 56 of the poems, sometimes 3 or 4 times in the same poem, and seems mainly to act as a ploy to join two otherwise ill-matched phrases or sentences or whatever, as in "from the inside they are/ a thing of great beauty/ yet surfing burns a lot of energy. . ." or "Zero visibility requires an acute sense of/ smell yet there's a lot of politicking going/ on with regard to these pipelines."

- 63 of the poems contain a question; often a poem will contain more than one. "What is it specifically/ about words that appeals to you as a medium?"

- a statement is sometimes (15 times, in fact) followed by "Yes, but"; it feels like loads more than 15, to be honest. "Sleep is the price we/ pay for learning. Yes but why would you spend/ several hours a day at the mercy of a predator?" The "Yes, but" often introduces a question, and commas seem to be optional.

- there are lots of allusions to figures out of popular culture, a lot of well-known musicians are name-dropped, though for some reason in one poem Leonard isn't given his Cohen after a quote from "First We Take Manhattan". Oh yes, there's quotes from songs, and Emma Peel and John Steed from "The Avengers" pop up a couple of times. I counted 25 poems that included something of this sort, and that's just quickly clocking the immediately obvious ones; I suspect there are other quotes or allusions I didn't recognise.

- the final ingredient (actually, it's a basic strategy of collage/montage, so probably should have been first in this list) is to throw in snippets, phrases and sentences drawn from newspapers, magazines, overheard remarks from TV, radio or even one's own kitchen. You might have to be careful what you say in the Spence household; it could end up in a poem.

Of course, it is perhaps probable that Mr. Spence would argue that these repetitions confer unity, and are common threads running through the 60+ poems here. Unfortunately, that on its own is not how poems work.

[NB. I should point out that the statistics above may be out by one or two, but they are pretty accurate. Counting those things once was bad enough; I couldn't bring myself to count them again to check.]

In all of this, sometimes it's blindingly obvious when something is 'borrowed' from another source, and sometimes you can't be sure, though you may have an inkling, whether or not any of the words you are reading are the poet's own, or if it's all stuff from elsewhere. It feels like most of it is from elsewhere, but who knows and who cares? It seems that anything can be thrown into the mix if the poet thinks it's interesting enough, but too often it isn't interesting when hauled out of context and used in this way. I know it doesn't really matter where words come from if the final result is a rewarding read, but is "Today the/ winds will be moderate and fresh but this/ is a town humming with modernity as a/ host of talented amateurs join in." by any stretch of the imagination worth the bother of reading? The fact is, if you take two dull things and stick them together, the chances are the result will be twice as dull.

Anyway, using the foregoing recipe, the poems come out of the oven a bit like this (although most will be a little longer):

        "Perfection belongs only to narrated events,"
        she said. Traditionally, mind wandering
        has been seen in a negative light. There's

        nothing quite like the human brain;
        here we have the grunting catfish.
        "She's got a head full of wasps," he said.

        Yet it was more of an animated debate than
        a riot and the mechanisms of regulation
        are intricate. Peter Vaughan died today.

        "It's only castles burning." Once again
        it's a question of managing our expectations.
        Can we choose which memories to keep

        and which to get rid of? Yes, but
        our robots aren't here just to make you look
        cool. Richard Thompson's in the background

        discussing traditional ballads
        & playing 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.
        It's time to sweat the vegetables.

Actually, I think this casserole ain't bad, as far as it goes – Neil Young and Peter Vaughan next to one another strikes me as vaguely amusing - but then Mr. Spence didn't do the cooking. I made this dish in ten minutes from random bits lifted out of random poems in the book, and just changed a couple of tiny details of punctuation. I could make a few more casseroles like this, but they would all taste more or less the same.

And that's this collection in a clichéd nutshell. Apart from the fact that they look different – one is very thin and without breaks, and the other is wider and made up of nine 3-line stanzas – when you read the last poem in the book you are, in effect, reading much the same poem as when you read the first, made in much the same way, and doing the same thing.

Everything seems rather interchangeable. To be generous, one should point out that there are identifiable topics that reoccur through the poems and their source materials. I seem to remember a few robots, and mention of tech, and there's some politics, and remarks about art and creativity. Oh, and the fish, of course. Don't forget the fish! But then "Mick Abrahams is a great blues guitarist" is thrown in at the end of a poem that started off mentioning colonial oppression, and it really doesn't work.

But yes, language is an interesting (but a little bit of a tired) subject, yet while it may be that some poems are more coherent than others, doesn't the unavoidable sense that this is all just similar stuff stuck together, all the time, again and again, render the reading process monotonous? Anyway,  so long, and thanks for all the fish. (See how easy it is?)

Of course, collage/montage/found as a process has, in the past, produced (by better writers) some fabulous works, so there's nothing inherently wrong with the basic procedures. The problem here is with the approach. For example, if you've decided your poem is going to include some aquatic life, someone saying something, a question, and a singer you like, there's a good chance that what you include is being included for that reason and no other. It suggests a lack of imagination, and writing by formula, neither of which is a good idea.

Speaking of ideas, one poem here asks "Are ideas important in art?" Well, these poems appear to have just the one, which is that you can cobble all kinds of language from a variety of sources together and mould it into what looks and sounds like a poem, and you will be saying something worth saying. But that's not enough. Imagination, wit, invention, and ringing the changes over the course of 6o-odd poems would also be an idea, but those things are not evident here at all, and I'm afraid the result is disappointing, to say the least.



Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2022